September 26, 2017

True charity and wishy-washy softness

By Alice von Hildebrand *
A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome Italy on June 9 2015 / Credit Bohumil Petrik_CNA
A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome Italy on June 9 2015 / Credit Bohumil Petrik_CNA

To love another person is to respond to his beauty and value (whether it is his ontological value as a child of God or whether it is a personal value as an enchanting human being). When we love, we necessarily wish to do good to the loved one: This is strikingly expressed in the Italian language: “Ti voglio bene” (I wish you well). This desire embraces all types of goods: from the most modest ones (such as a good meal) to the most important one: a person’s eternal salvation.  The greater the love, the more spheres of goods will it embrace while respecting the hierarchy of these goods. To strive to give another person a lower good, while actually damaging his higher good, betrays a very poor love.

Moreover, love desires union with the beloved, and must necessarily wish this union to last forever; love longs for eternity.

The wise men of yore (e.g., Plato) have often remarked that man tends to be his own worst enemy. Surprisingly enough, there is something in man that chooses to militate against his own true good. The innumerable men that are hooked on alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or ambition, are ultimately destroying themselves. It is not easy “to love oneself;” as a matter of fact, it is so difficult that, as St. Augustine remarked, only those who love God above all things learn to truly love themselves. All vices are man’s deadly foes; they all thwart that good in him and choke the noble seeds that might blossom in his soul.

A friend who sees that the one he cares for is harming himself and heading toward his ruin, must, out of true love, not only warn him, but do everything in his power to pull him out of the rut in which he has fallen. No lover would dream of giving drugs to his loved one who is a drug-addict, or liquor to someone who is an alcoholic etc. What would you think of someone who seeing that his friend is about to fall into an abyss would not lovingly warn him and stretch his hand to save him? St. Francis of Sales tells us that it is laudable to be compassionate toward sinners, but that compassion should express itself in the sincere intention to pull them out of the quagmire into which they have fallen. It is a perverse type of mercifulness, he adds, to see one’s neighbor enslaved by sin and fail to date to stretch out one’s hand to pull him out of this mud hole (Spirit of St. Francis of Sales: Msgr. Camus, p. 205).

It is typical of decadent societies that love is identified with whatever makes another person “feel good.” If he enjoys eating fattening foods when he is obese, we should refrain from warning him and even offer it to him because “he likes it;” if he enjoys watching pornographic movies, we should give him some for his birthday: “he is having such a good time.” What would we think of a mother who fails to give her sick child the antibiotics prescribed by a doctor, “Because he does not enjoy taking pills?”

This is the philosophy rampant in our society; and it explains why contemporary men rebuke and deprecate the Roman Catholic Church for teaching authoritatively in matters of dogmas and moral, clearly unconcerned whether or not her sheep “enjoy” the content of her teaching.

If it is thought that the church is unloving and harsh, it must be remembered that her great, overwhelming concern is the eternal welfare of her children and this is the best proof that she is a loving mother warning them to keep clear of actions which endanger their great beneficial good: their eternal union with God.

This has been strikingly formulated by St. Augustine when he wrote in a letter: “severity that springs from love is preferable to deceitful gentleness” (quoted in Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, V, p. 98). 

St. Francis of Sales also warns us not to identify love with sentimental softness. While fully deserving the reputation of being most gentle and benign, he could be severe when severity was called for (Camus, p. 184).

C.S. Lewis remarked: “…for about a hundred hears we have so concentrated on one of the virtues – “kindness” or mercy – that most of us do not feel anything except kindness to be really good….” (The Problem of Pain, Human Wickedness, p. 43-44).

Let us beware of this wishy-washy softness which is nothing but indifference to the true good of others.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.